Public Grievance

During my preliminary fieldwork, I had established a good rapport with the assistant municipal commissioner (AMC) of the M/E ward who had guaranteed me access upon my return to do in depth ethnographic fieldwork of the quotidian practices of the ward office. During this period I had established links with many lower level staff (mainly Junior engineers (JE) and sub engineers (SE)) within the ward office which had given me some degree of confidence in returning to this office for my dissertation fieldwork. I had also spent a lot of time sitting in on various monthly meetings and ‘public grievance’ meetings hosted by Mr. K, a young energetic AMC who saw the value of documenting their mundane everyday bureaucratic activities which even to him were full of contradictions. However, unsurprisingly as happens within the bureaucracy, almost half of my contacts had been transferred to other wards by the time I started my dissertation fieldwork. The biggest setback for me was the transfer and replacement of Mr. K with Mr. G., who was a veteran of the local bureaucracy and didn’t see much value in a researcher looking into their day to day activities. However, I was greatly relieved to find Mr. M still deputed as the Executive engineer, incharge of the infrastructural activities of the ward. I had spent a lot of time observing dealings and transactions in his office in the previous round of my fieldwork and had established a cordial relationship with him. Like Mr. K, Mr. M was also more than willing to grant me access to the departments that he oversaw within the ward office, which is what I was really counting on anyway.

When I first met Mr. K, he was serving in the M/E ward office which undeniably is the most socio economically backward ward in the city of Mumbai. In this ward, he was regarded as the supreme commander; able to grant people their petitions and also exercise his authority in a somewhat convincing way. As a young bureaucrat, he was faced with complicated moral conundrums on a regular basis that had almost given some meaning to the job that he seemed to be performing. He took great pleasure in being able to make available funds for a small clearing close to a particularly downtrodden slum to be designated as a garden, or get a public toilet repaired, or tear down unauthorized constructions erected by slum lords, etc. In the ward that he had moved to however, things seemed completely different – he had been transferred to the A ward which is the heart of colonial Bombay. When I met him on my return for the yearlong fieldwork he quipped – “yehaan toh log seedha MC ko phone kar dete hain, koi ward officer koh puchta hi nahi hai.” He also noted the stark difference between the petitioners that he used to have in the M/E ward, their problems and those that he had here in the business district of Mumbai. Despite the fact that he wasn’t posted at the M/E ward office Mr. K remained a valuable informant for me throughout my forays into the workings of the ward office.